SAO PAULO – A former U.S. ambassador described Brazil's efforts to build nuclear submarines as "white elephants" and said concern over its sovereignty in the Amazon region veered into "paranoia," according to cables released Wednesday by WikiLeaks.
But Ambassador Clifford Sobel also wrote in January 2009 that Brazil's plans to modernize its military would help it become a stabilizing force in South America and saw that as a benefit to the United States.
The messages, intended to be confidential, were posted on the website of document discloser WikiLeaks, along with other cables from U.S. diplomats based in countries around the world.
Brazil said in a defense plan made public in late 2008 that it would beef up troops in its vast Amazon rain forest, build nuclear and conventional submarines to protect offshore oil fields and modernize its weapons industry under the national defense plan.
Sobel ended his three-year service as ambassador in August 2009, wrote that while the document details the dangers of uncontrolled jungle borders, "it also indulges in the traditional Brazilian paranoia concerning the activities of non-governmental organizations and other shadowy foreign forces that are popularly perceived as potential threats to Brazil's sovereignty."
Even so, he wrote, that concern "serves the practical purpose of tasking the military with developing greater capabilities."
For more than two decades, Brazil has been pushing to obtain or build a nuclear-powered submarine. In December 2008, Brazil and France signed a deal that called for France to transfer technology to build four diesel-powered attack submarines and "develop the non-nuclear part of a nuclear-propelled submarine," according to a statement then posted on the website of Brazil's Foreign Ministry.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other top officials have said the discovery of massive oil reserves off Brazil's southeastern coast warrant investment in a more robust Navy to protect the riches.
Sobel, however, wrote that efforts such as the nuclear-powered sub were "politically popular white elephants."
"There is no threat, for example, to Brazil's maritime oil deposits," Sobel wrote. "But Brazilian leaders and media have routinely cited oil discoveries off the coast as an urgent reason for better maritime security."
The former ambassador also questioned whether Brazil be able to follow through on the full plan to modernize its military because it would mean a sharp increase in spending.
Doubts aside, Sobel said a stronger Brazil would be positive from a U.S. perspective.
"A Brazilian military that is more capable and deployable can support U.S. interests by exporting stability in Latin America and be available for peacekeeping elsewhere," he wrote.
In an e-mailed statement Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia said that "as a matter of policy, the Department of State does not comment on allegedly leaked documents."
"The United States views Brazil as an essential partner in the hemisphere and world and we are committed to deepening our relationship with the government and people of Brazil," the statement read.
Calls to Brazil's Defense Ministry were not immediately returned.